FOR lawmakers, it was a textbook dilemma: whether to respond to the grievances of a longtime cold war ally on the basis of principle or pragmatism.
In the end, it was pragmatism that won out as Congress opted this week to release nearly $400 million worth of arms and military equipment to Pakistan at the expense of its commitment to contain the global spread of nuclear weapons.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers, backed by the Clinton administration, argued successfully this week that the release of the equipment, held in storage in the US since 1990, opens the door to greater cooperation with Islamabad on issues ranging from international terrorism to drug trafficking.
Critics charge that the decision reached on Tuesday makes a mockery of the US law that locked the equipment in US warehouses by barring military aid to nations developing nuclear weapons.
In India, this week's action held more ominous implications, prompting threats that it would fuel a new arms race in South Asia and place enormous pressure on the Indian government to shift its spending priorities.
''It's definitely going to fuel tension; it's definitely going to lead to an arms race; and it's definitely going to lead to pressure for putting more dollars into defense than into development,'' says one Indian source.
DURING the 1980s, Pakistan was the third-largest recipient of US military aid. But US arms sales were halted in 1990, when President Bush was unable to certify under a 1985 statute called the Pressler amendment that Pakistan did not have a nuclear device.
Caught in the pipeline was $368 million in arms and equipment, plus 28 F-16 fighter aircraft that were partially paid for and that also sit in storage, for which the US is charging rent.
''That leaves an impression in Pakistan of a certain amount of unfairness,'' notes one senior Clinton administration official. ''You can't have your goods but we have your money and we'll charge you rent besides.''
A year ago the administration concluded that the Pressler amendment left the US with the worst of both worlds: poisoning relations with Pakistan without retarding its nuclear-weapons program.
Accordingly, it threw its support behind an amendment to a Senate appropriations bill, sponsored by Sen. Hank Brown (R) of Colorado and approved Tuesday, that releases all but the F-16s to Pakistan with a onetime exemption. Under the amendment, the US will seek a buyer for the F-16s and give Pakistan the proceeds.
The US official disputes India's contention that the amendment upsets the conventional military balance in South Asia and says the US has no plans to sell new arms to Pakistan. Conversations are being held with two potential purchasers of the F-16s, the Philippines and Indonesia.
The total amount in question is small relative to the annual defense budgets of the two nations - $8 billion for India and just under $4 billion for Pakistan.
India says the issue is not the dollar amount but the extent to which the equipment - including three naval patrol planes, 28 Howitzers, and 28 Harpoon antiship missiles - will increase Pakistan's reconnaissance and offensive military capabilities.
India, which has eight times Pakistan's population, enjoys a 2-to-1 advantage over its Islamic neighbor in tanks, troops, artillery, and planes.
India's supporters on Capitol Hill insist that the Brown amendment sends the wrong message to rogue nuclear states.
''Why should we reward Pakistan with $370 million worth of conventional weaponry when Pakistan deliberately lied to the US about its nuclear program?'' a group of 40 House members asked in a letter to a House-Senate conference committee last month. ''If this amendment is adopted, how can anyone take our nonproliferation laws seriously?''
Pakistan says it has the know-how but has not assembled a bomb - a contention most experts doubt. But in the end, lawmakers subordinated their nuclear concerns to putting strained relations with Islamabad on a more even keel.